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September 10, 2015

as peaceable as possible

Have you ever had a job where everyone plays the lottery together? I had one such job for quite a few years. The tickets were just $2 or occasionally $5 each, and a coworker with a clipboard would come around collecting money every other week or so, record who had contributed, and then go buy tickets with whatever she collected. The idea, of course, was to improve our odds of winning by pooling our money, buying lots of tickets, and sharing the winnings.

When the collector would come around, the response in our department was virtually always the same. My supervisor would stand up, pull some coins from the pocket of his coat he hung behind the door, and joke about stealing the $2 from his kids' allowances. The rest of the coworkers in the room would shell out a few dollars each. And as for me, I never played.

One day a different coworker started collecting the money. When I said I preferred not to buy a ticket, she said, as if she had been prepped about me, "Oh, yeah, you don't play for religious reasons." I wanted to tell her that it wasn't really for religious reasons; or at least that a little financial common sense would also suggest that she not play the lottery, either. But before I could thoroughly explain myself, she was picking up twonies from someone else in the room.

Not playing the lottery sort of became my thing. Often the company owner and I were the only ones in the whole building who didn't put money into the pot. Good-natured teasing came my way, about how I'd have to work when the rest of them were retiring early. Then the owner, overhearing the jokes, would tell me that I would be guaranteed a wage hike and be second in command if the rest of them left for Tahiti with their lottery winnings. We would all laugh.

I did more than my own share of teasing back. I would joke about what I could buy with all the money I'd saved by not putting in my $2 each week. I would talk about the Reese's I was going to get from the candy machine with my $2, and remind them how $5 bought a tasty sandwich at the grocery store down the road. When occasionally the collector would happily announce that they had won $20, I would smile and ask her how much money it had cost them to get $20. Then I would tease, "I wonder if I could find a bank that would give me that kind of interest! If I could put in $50, and get only $20 back! What a bargain...!" We would banter back and forth.

Then one day I read Paul's instruction, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." When that verse took root in my heart, I realized that while some of our talk was in good fun, my teasing about my coworkers' decision to lose money each week (insinuating that they were unintelligent or irresponsible) was not really peaceable living. So, I stopped teasing (at least about that).

During those years I thought a lot about what winsome, peaceable communication looks like. Some days as the smokers in my department zipped up their winter coats in preparation for inhaling hazardous toxins outside, a couple of non-smokers would seize the opportunity to rag them about the dangers of smoking. While I agreed that smoking is unhealthy and unwise, I decided not to participate in this teasing because I realized that poking and prodding about topics like these would probably mean the loss of opportunities for more meaningful conversations about God, for example, or purpose or morality. I sought to cut down on my teasing about things that didn't really matter in the long term (believe it or not, there are smokers and gamblers amongst the redeemed) and look for those little opportunities to squeeze in more important (and even potentially-controversial) words, though those opportunities seemed few and far between. For me, this was an important lesson and something I'm still learning.

Lately, I've been watching with some concern how well-meaning believers throw highly controversial articles up on Facebook and—to use the same word Paul did—disturb the peace. You know what I mean; I'm talking opinionated posts about topics that tend to be divisive:
gun legislation
the definition of marriage
contraception, or
a particular diet.
Some people get sort of accidentally caught in controversy. (You didn't know that Aunt Fran had strong opinions about Shetland ponies? Well, she does.) But it appears to me that others are not posting gently or peaceably; they're practically wanting to stir up their followers who disagree with them on important issues.

I understand that truth by its very nature is divisive and at times offensive. I do believe that there is a place for using social media to raise awareness for concerns or crimes that the regular media is not covering (such as the recent videos exposing the systematic killing of babies). I too have strong opinions on both important and unimportant subjects—remember, I was one out of about forty employees who, week after week, didn't play the lottery. But when I try to bring Paul's teaching to bear on social media sharing, I ask: Is posting this the best way to live peaceably with the people who might read it? 

I heard Facebook described as an awkward party that you feel you can't leave and truly, that is what is has become for many people. Chances are that unless you've been very selective in your friending, you're followed by everyone: the vegan pro-abortion neighbour; the conservative head-covering cousin with ten children; your mother, who comments on everything you share; your quiet childhood friend whom you haven't seen in twenty years...and everyone in between. What to one is an encouraging post is to another deeply offensive. To make things worse, in an online "conversation" most vital communication cues such as tone of voice or timing don't come across so well. Truth is truth—but all of our friends are at different levels of readiness to accept truth and have different levels of trust in us and our message. Why even try to be peaceable when it seems virtually impossible? Well, because Paul also enjoined us to "speak the truth in love." Paul didn't use social media, but this was his strategy: "I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some."

How can we share the truth in love? How can we be peaceable when so much that we believe seems counter-cultural? Here are a few ideas I've had.
  1. Communicate difficult truths less through social media outlets, and more through live conversations and relationships. Initiate real life (or at the very least, private message!) conversations with people about topics that not everyone would be edified by seeing. Most of my unbelieving friends could probably guess quite accurately my views on the above listed issues (except about Shetland ponies—I tend to keep my views about them quite private).  But it is one thing for them to see my views in their Facebook feed—it's quite another for us to peaceably discuss them over supper at my house or in a quiet corner of the lunchroom. Real relationships can be severely damaged or at least hindered because of digital conversations that have not been well-planned. You'll probably also find that people are less abrasive when discussing a topic in person. Speaking of which...
  2. Don't post things that you wouldn't have the courage to discuss or say in person, if you were talking to the people who can see what you post. Some people are all bravado on the internet, but sheepish in person. I can easily be that person, because my written words are often stronger than my spoken ones, and there was an incident this year after which I determined to try to follow this rule myself. Be a voice of peace in every setting, because whether it is your digital voice or your physical voice, it should be the voice of Christ. 
  3. Do post (and like and comment) with your entire audience in mind. Suit your posts to your audience. If you want to post things that aren't appropriate for every single person in your feed, Facebook allows you to limit your audience for your posts. Some content could be meaningful to your believing friends but alienating to your unbelieving friends. To me, giving people ideas which they are not prepared to appreciate seems like throwing pearls before swine, or sowing your best seeds on unplowed, weedy soil. For example, in recent weeks I posted on Facebook about Rosaria Butterfield to a  limited audience. The truths she shares are precious pearls for those who are receptive; but others will trample the same pearls. (Note: check other settings as well; just because you're not posting on controversial topics doesn't mean that you're not liking or commenting on things that show up in all of your 600 friends' feeds.) 
  4. Pray about your posts. I do think that there are times when a post can be controversial but also appropriate, when shared in a peaceful, loving way. If you are posting something of this nature, pray about the post or comment, asking God whether it is wise, and if you do post it, ask God to use it to draw people to Himself and not to push them away.  
As far as I know, my former coworkers have still not won the lottery. They continue to work the eight to four-thirty shift and put their $2, sometimes $5, into the lottery each week. Maybe they still smoke, or tease the smokers. Since I've known them, some of them may have spent upwards of $700 just on the office lottery. (Let's not even talk about the cost of cigarettes). There's about 1 in 10,000,000 chances that someday they'll win "the big one" and message me gleefully...however, I might not get the message until later...maybe I'll be off spending my $700 plus interest on my dream trip to Russia. (There's still some tease left in me!)

Lottery players seldom win, but wisdom always wins big in the end. Maybe it's that assurance that we have that makes us eager to share truth with everyone we know—we are confident that the truth will prevail. It is a good thing to be confident in what He has promised. But let's be wise stewards of our digital communication by choosing fewer and better words. Let's share more of His Word, and less of superfluous human opinion. We're called to be strong and courageous, but we're also called to be peaceable and loving. The message of the gospel itself is offensive enough—may we wisely add no personal offence to it.

"Like apples of gold in settings of silver 
Is a word spoken in right circumstances." 

"The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable..." 

"...a word spoken in due season, how good it is!" 

"Through patience a ruler can be persuaded,
and a gentle tongue can break a bone." 

"Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves...Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

 "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God..." 
—writer to the Hebrews